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Recognizing Stress in Children

Updated on June 12, 2012

Acting Out Can Be a Sign of Stress

We all have been in a situation where a child in our care is highly stressed. It is usually quite obvious: they are having a tantrum! But tantrum behavior is the end result of a series of signs. It is important to be able spot the more subtle signs and then make interventions before the child gets to the state of a full blown tantrum.

For children who are diagnosed with Acute Stress or Post traumatic Stress Disorder, ‘tantrum’ is not an accurate term; ‘stress episode’ is a better description. A tantrum in an average child is less intense, shorter duration, and the quality of the acting out behavior is usually manipulative or done out of anger and frustration. For the stress disordered child, their stress episode behaviors have less to do with the present and more to do with the past critical incidents that caused the stress disorder. Those who have spent time in treating stress disordered children can quickly learn to discern the difference between a tantrum and a stress episode. However, both tantrums and stress episodes have much in common.

The first thing to look for is the amount of simulation that the child has recently had or is currently having. Extreme stimulation can pour chemicals into the child’s bloodstream and create stress behaviors. The fancy term for this is “allostatic load”. As the body responds to the new levels of stimulation, predictable behaviors begin to emerge. For a child, “stimulation” can be such things as: getting too excited around peers at a party, school tests, being pressured to comply with directives, or contact with particular people.

If you think of a glass of water, everyone has a particular capacity for stress before the glass “overflows”. The overflow is the stress signs. Most children have a set of coping strategies that they have learned from a very young age, and can maintain good behavior even when stressed. Other children, who have not had this kind of early learning, or come from very difficult and stressed families, often are very reactive to even minor stressors. This is a good sign to watch for: if the child becomes hyper reactive to minor stressors.

Stress also can show up as an increased anxiety. The child may appear to be hyperactive, and seems to become very picky or obsessed about minor things. They may find it very hard to calm down for any length of time, even with your help to do so. Adults may find themselves telling the child over and over again to “relax”, or “calm down”.

Other signs to look for include a general pattern of fight or flight. This can mean literally fighting physically or verbally, or running away. But it may not be so dramatic a flight; a child may begin to isolate or withdraw from the family and peers, or they may begin to rush through their schoolwork or chores, not completing or making many mistakes. They also may begin to stop engaging in preferred activities as a form of flight. Some younger children may hide in closets or under their beds. As the adult, you may feel the “space” between you and the child begin to open up; like the child is drifting away in the relationship. Children may become contentious and escalate sibling rivalries as a form of “fight”.

More subtle, children often have a lowered capacity for internal monitoring when very stressed. This means that they have a hard time knowing and expressing what they feel. When an adult recognizes that the child is having difficulty and asks the child about it, the child will have a tough time explaining what is going on. Many children will simply state: “I don’t know”, or not give a response at all. Unfortunately, if the adult does not ask the question in the right way, the child will likely feel that they are being corrected (read: persecuted).

Also, children who are under stress will quite often have very altered and distorted thinking. When they try to express themselves, it may be hard to follow. Their logic is often flawed, and they will reject any logic presented to them. They also may have a hard time in relating the proper chronology of a particular event.

The earlier the signs of stress in a child are recognized, the earlier an intervention can be made to help avoid a full blown tantrum, or lower the intensity of the oncoming behaviors.


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